Global Climate Pacts: Self Destructive or Successful? John Cairns, Jr. University Distinguished Professor of Environmental Biology Emeritus Department of Biological Sciences Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University Blacksburg, Virginia 24061, U.S.A. December 2009
Greenhouse gas emissions must not exceed the biosphere’s ability to assimilate them.
Climate pacts that fail to address this crucial issue will not be effective.
Political negotiations will fail if they ignore the biosphere’s role in regulating Earth’s climate.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change maintains an extensive list of anthropogenic greenhouse gases. • Aggregated anthropogenic greenhouse gases are generally identified as CO2 equivalents. • The major greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide, water vapor, methane, and nitrous oxide.
As the biosphere changes due both to climate change and loss of biodiversity, assimilative capacity for greenhouse gases will probably diminish. • Biospheric assimilative capacity for greenhouse gases alters during seasonal climate change, as well as during long-term climate trends. • Preliminary evidence indicates that Earth’s oceans are becoming less efficient at assimilating carbon dioxide. • Emissions of anthropogenic greenhouse gases must be altered to match biospheric assimilative capacity. • Monitoring assimilative capacity will provide feedback of information that enables adjustment to both short- and long-term changes in biospheric assimilation of greenhouse gases. • Climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions is irreversible.1
Climate is only one of many factors whose interactions affect the biosphere. These factors follow. • overpopulation • ecological overshoot (using resources more rapidly than Earth can replenish them) • habitat loss • acidification of oceans • ecotoxics (e.g., endocrine disrupters) • irreversible climate change • The strong desire to compartmentalize problems is the road to failure when addressing highly interactive global systems. • Free and open discussion of overpopulation is resisted for many reasons in many cultures. • Decisions on ecological overshoot and climate change are blocked because remedial measures might adversely affect economic growth. • Ocean acidification is caused by a greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, and reduction of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions has been strongly resisted. • Ecotoxicology is a complex subject, poorly understood by politicians, the news media, and the general public. Gathering evidence on toxics such as endocrine disrupters is costly and time consuming.
Inadequately researched “Hail Mary” geo-engineering schemes to fight climate change are becoming increasingly popular.2,3 • “Hail Mary” technologies are increasingly popular because negotiations to reduce anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have been strikingly unsuccessful. • Carbon dioxide is increasing in the atmosphere. Carbon stored in frozen, hydrated methane (oceans) and permafrost is already being released into the atmosphere. • Stabilizing the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at 550 ppm CO2 equivalents would provide only a 25% chance of limiting temperature rise to 2°C between 1990 and 2090.4 • Both the American Meteorological Society and the UK Royal Society have called for more research and have warned that geo-engineering approaches should not supplant efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. • Time is short – the options are few and the risks high. • The 2009 Climate Conference in Copenhagen may not result in a major reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
In the early part of the 21st century, lack of remedial action on global warming was justified by the uncertainties in science. As a consequence, political uncertainties have markedly increased and humankind is much closer to ecological tipping points. • All of life is uncertain. Even when the science is uncertain, if the consequences of inaction are severe, precautionary action is justified. • “Business as usual” is no longer an option. • Since runaway climate change has moved from possible to probable, adaptation to markedly altered conditions should be given significant attention. • In the efforts to keep Earth habitable for humans, we must not forget posterity and the other species with which we share the planet.
Risks of drastic runaway climate change increase markedly each year if reduction of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions is postponed. The German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU)5 states, “However, even warming of 2 degrees C cannot be regarded as safe…”
Even if geo-engineering technologies are used to arrest global warming trends, both the US National Academy of Sciences and the UK Royal Society warned that geo-engineering approaches should not supplant efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Humankind has caused present climate change problems by emitting more greenhouse gases than the biosphere could assimilate.
Humankind should be willing to make major sacrifices to eliminate the problems it has caused.
The WBGU5 states: “From an ethical point of view, the best solution is to equally allocate emissions on a per capita basis, so that national emissions budgets can be calculated according to the size of the population. Thus, each country has a precisely defined ‘atmospheric capital’ which it can flexibly manage and trade on international markets between now and the year 2050.” • This approach appears to be the best option for involving third world countries in the major global effort necessary to avoid runaway climate change. • Inevitably, strong objections will be voiced from representatives of some countries with high per capita emissions, but one hopes the consequences of failure, when understood, will overcome these objections. • The WBGU5 gives a detailed description of how the budget will be managed and compliance verified.
Coping with the multiple interactive global crises (i.e., climate change, overpopulation, ecological overshoot, loss of biodiversity, toxic chemicals) requires a new social contract to nurture the biosphere, which is both humankind’s life support system and the basis of the human economic system. • A new social contract will be a “hard sell” because the percentage of Americans who believe warming is happening has dipped from 80% to 72% during the past year. The United States is a major greenhouse gas emitter, so a strong, immediate action would almost certainly influence other major greenhouse gas emitters. • The disagreement, according to David Winston, who has polled the House and Senate Republican leadership on the issue, is “Where there’s disagreement is how immediate and huge is the threat.” • The preponderance of scientific evidence indicates that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are a significant component of the climate change crisis.
The risks of “business as usual” are that a major ecological tipping point will be passed, resulting in irreversible climate change. • Among the factors likely to be affected adversely are agricultural productivity, water resources, biodiversity, human health,6 national and personal security, natural resources, infrastructure (e.g., rising sea levels), and tourism. • The present biosphere, in which humans evolved and flourished, will probably be replaced by a significantly different biosphere whose ecosystem services are less favorable to humans. • Invasive species will probably dominate indigenous species. • The biggest obstacle to reducing emissions is lack of trust in other people, in government, and in science.
Humankind has risen to overcome huge risks, but establishing a social contract to avoid the destruction of civilization as presently known is an unprecedented challenge. • Evolution more often fails than succeeds. Realizing the consequences of failing to achieve a robust social contract should be a strong motivation to reduce the risk of driving Homo sapiens to extinction. • Humankind has severely damaged its life support system – the biosphere. It has the ability to stop the damage but not to repair it. • Species survival requires fitness (suitability for habitat) and adaptability. Even in hot Death Valley, USA, species can be pushed to extinction by a few degrees increase in temperature. • Jared Diamond’s book Collapse7documents how human societies choose to succeed or fail at regional levels. How can humankind even consider choosing to fail at a global level?
Discussions of the multiple, interactive crises that humankind must resolve lack ecoethics, which includes the biosphere, of which humans are a component, and the other species that are also in the biosphere. • Ecoethics includes intergenerational ethics. For example, causing irreversible climate change by continuing “business as usual” will adversely affect the quality of life of many future generations. • Lack of ecoethics permits flooding habitable land (e.g., The Maldives and estuaries), creating millions of environmental refugees. • Lack of ecoethics permits habitat destruction and extinction of other species. • Lack of ecoethics encourages the dissemination of inaccurate information on a variety of environmental problems. • Although clearly legal, is it ethical for people who openly admit they fail to understand scientific issues8 to pronounce upon them or for an editor to give such people a soapbox?9 • Is overconsumption of finite resources unethical? • “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil.”10
Surely if humankind places any value on intergenerational ethics, they can be used as a key part of a global climate pact.
Acknowledgments: I am indebted to Karen Cairns for transcribing the handwritten first draft and for comments on various issues, to Darla Donald for editorial assistance, and to Valerie Sutherland for converting it to Power Point. • References • 1Solomon, S., G. K. Plattner, and P. F. Friedlingsteind. 2009. Irreversible climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106:1704-1709. • 2Morello, L. 2009. Scientists seek “Plan B” for fighting climate change. New York Times 2Nov http://www.nytimes.com/cwire/2009/11/02/02climatewire-scientists-seek-plan-b-for-fighting-climate-16296.html. • 3Environmental Research Letters. 2009. Volume 4, Number 4 Oct-Dec http://www.iop.org/EJ/toc/1748-9326/4/4.. • 4Prinn, R. 2009. As quoted in Morello, L. 2009. Scientists seek “Plan B” for fighting climate change. New York Times 2Nov http://www.nytimes.com/cwire/2009/11/02/02climatewire-scientists-seek-plan-b-for-fighting-climate-16296.html. • 5WBGU (German Advisory Council on Global Change) 2004. Solving the Climate Dilemma: The Budget Approach. Special Report, Berlin, Germany, p.14. • 6Myers, S. S. 2009. Global Environmental Change: The Threat to Human Health, Report 181. WorldWatch, Washington, DC. • 7Diamond, J. 2005. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Penguin Group, New York. • 8Tierney, J. 2009. As quoted in Ehrlich, P. R. 2009. Ecoethics: now central to all ethics. Bioethical Inquiry 6:417–436. • 9Tierney, J. 2008. Science adviser’s unsustainable bet (and mine). New York Times 23Dec http://tierneylab.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/12/23/science-advisors-unsustainable-bet-and-mine/. • 10Bonhoeffer, D. 2003. As quoted in Cone, J. H. 2003. Theology’s great sin: silence in the face of white supremacy. Pages 1-15 in Soul Work; Anti-Racist Theologies in Dialogue. M. Bowers-Wheatley and N. Palmer Jones, ed. Skinner House Books, Boston.